St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, November 15, 2020
“For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed unto the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself.”
LAST TUESDAY WAS VETERANS’ DAY, and some of the honoring language we attributed to our war veterans and military heroes got me thinking. They put their lives on the line to ensure that we share in the joys of freedom, those inalienable rights that the founders wrote about. I heard a story about George Washington who, on the eve of crossing the Delaware River, sought to encourage his freezing and discouraged volunteer army facing of almost certain defeat at the hands of far better-armed and better-trained red coats outnumbering them across the icy waters.
Washington read them a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, called The American Crisis. Published only four days earlier, in December of 1776, this word came to the ears of citizen soldiers that included John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr. England’s General Howe had offered pardons for deserters, and the American army’s motto, Victory or Death, was sounding ominous to that ragtag bunch of farm boys who shivered on the icy banks in the fog that Christmas Eve, 244 years ago. Paine had written them:
“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.” Thomas Paine The American Crisis
Citizen soldiers are all we’ve ever sent into battle behind the US Flag. We have no monarch to hire a battalion of mercenaries, no dogs of war who would just as soon fight for the other side, given the chance and better pay. For citizen soldiers the 2nd amendment to the Constitution was assured, that every citizen of this free country might responsibly defend him or herself, and our country.
What is citizenship? A citizen usually is a resident of a place, with membership in the state, having either been born or naturalized by legal steps with a swearing of allegiance to the land of choice. Citizens are free people, within the laws of that land.
But the founders of our country saw a more powerful hand behind the lives of the dwellers on earth. They knew there was a higher cause and more powerful source of human rights, of life itself, than a throne or crown. Every country on earth was founded by and for the powers that be, and whoever held the power could rule by that power. These brave colonists dared to think otherwise. They wanted a land founded under, and subject only, to Truth.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We...solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are…free and independent states...and, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” our Declaration proclaims. All the founders wrote that, to establish a land of self-governing men and women, they must all first believe in and serve the living God, who gives them this life, liberty and a right to seek happiness.
The 1st century had no such land or empire. Caesar ruled by divine right and his whims and insane notions could not be questioned. The ragged missionary Paul roamed that empire in constant danger of getting the evil attention of the emperor of Rome, while he was dodging the murderous plottings of the Jewish Sanhedrin or the mobs of Philippi. More than once he felt the need to invoke his rights as a Roman citizen inherited from his father in Tarsus. That gained him time, and a hearing at trial, and ultimately the demand to take his case to Caesar. And it was in prison, in Rome, that he wrote to Philippi, that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Phil 3:20-21
Human plots, and kingdoms ruled by sheer power, may have more tentative charge over our lives than we do, except for two very important factors. The first is that, no matter what the oppressive force, regardless of how insane the world gets, however many thousand slight cuts seek to kill us: we have the ownership of our own minds, and we have power to deny them access to our souls, where our attitudes and our ability to find meaning cannot be assailed if we rule our own hearts by divinely given reason. The second factor is better still, and Paul’s sanity was being saved by saying it: our citizenship is not ultimately here. It is in heaven. We are citizens of a place we’ve never seen, but we are born from above and have been translated into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, a kingdom that shall have no end, forever.
Jesus never feared Caesar’s power. They held a coin out to Him with the picture and name of the emperor. It was a shame to Jews to use such currency, in direct violation of the 2nd commandment not to have graven images of gods, and this emperor said that he was god on earth. The coin held a side shot of his head. Jesus held up the offending coin, saying: “Pay Caesar whatever belongs to Caesar. But give God everything that is God’s.” Truth over power. Jesus had both, but He never called Himself power. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He said.
If we are citizens of heaven, we may still honor the land of the free and the home of the brave, and feel our hearts swell at the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, without conflict. This land encourages our faith. We are able to freely seek it. So, are we dual citizens? Do we owe our allegiance to one, not the other, and is there something weakened by doing so? What is the kingdom above to whose shores we want to emigrate someday? Jesus spoke of that kingdom often. He came to declare it.
He gave us the keys to it by faith in Him as the Christ. By doing the will of the Father, we enter in. Like the faithful virgins, we may come when our lamps are lit. As laborers in his vineyard are paid, our citizenship will be granted us. If we, like children, give our faith and hearts to Him, we are counted great in His kingdom. A welcome feast is preparing there for us. We will be wedded to His Son. Though we are poor in spirit, yet we shall inherit that land. His seed sown in us will grow, if we are good soil, and like a tiny mustard seed it gets huge. A great variety of humanity will be there. Our persecutions here only qualify us for greater reward there. The kingdom of heaven is ours today, even as we walk this planet, for we are citizens of that place. Our hope is assured in Him already.
It’s fascinating to study those who know they’re dying. When nature is calling someone to prepare to leave this life, they may either get frantic, screaming for medical services, painkillers and intervention, or they instead become quite calm and determined, knowing that they have finally qualified for the great change. Faith makes the difference. Knowing that the Face of Christ is their next encounter, and that He will be smiling, is that true mind, that soul possessed by sanity, making meaning of the chaos of dying. The body processes churn to preserve life on earth, but the soul reaches out to heaven, and peace overcomes desperation. That life is better than this.
But while we live, we are to occupy. It’s not good if we get too heavenly minded, failing to see a world underfoot that needs us now. While not neglecting our spiritual lives, we must live here at the present, not check out early, and shine where we are, bringing that light to others, making our world better, for this is the doorway to that land and most of our acquaintances haven’t got the key.
What our veterans fought for, many died for, was a land where our 1st Amendment was honored first. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Before all other rights or privileges find their articulation, our right to freedom of religion is established against any government trying to force one church, or no church, on its people. This is a Christian principle, that we come by faith, not force, into our citizenship above. After that, we have free speech, free press, free assembly, free association, and free access to government. No saving faith can survive the abolition of these rights. While the founders believed religion made good citizens and atheism could not serve so well, they left us free to decide. Very wise.
The Church of England ruled the British soldiers by edict of King George. Many colonial Anglican priests were conflicted and fled to England or Canada. One Anglican priest in Connecticut served the British army as its chaplain in New York. The Rev. Samuel Seabury could not forswear his previous oath to the crown while the Revolution swung in the balance. But at its happy conclusion, Seabury was first to be elected bishop for the new independent Episcopal Church of the USA, and took new oaths to the Kingdom of Heaven, serving his flock in the New World. After all, His true king had given Bishop Seabury, one of heaven’s happy citizens, such freedom in faith.